Farm to Table takes root in the Lakes Region

LACONIA — When chef Kevin Halligan was preparing to open The Local Eatery, located in the railroad depot in downtown Laconia, many thought he was crazy to promise an ever-changing menu built primarily on local ingredients. Now, having celebrated a third year in business that is double what his initial business plan projected, he thinks the crazy thing is that no one else has appeared to emulate his success.

If the local farm-to-table restaurants were a mountain range, Local Eatery would be its Everest. With few exceptions, Halligan's food is made from food grown and processed in northern New England, and much of it within a few towns of the restaurant. At this time of year, diners should expect their meal to be 85 to 95 percent locally-sourced. "If we can get it from here, we're getting it from here," he said. "I try to stay true to my mantra, and obviously, it works."

As his doubters expected, it's not the easiest way to stock his pantry. In August and September, his days begin at 9 a.m. and end sometime after midnight. He spends the hours before dinner service prepping both for that night's orders as well as putting away food to serve over the winter months. On Thursday morning, for example, he was poaching and pressure canning pears so that he'll have local fruit to serve in January.

He also has to build and maintain a network of local farmers willing and able to sell to him as well as their CSA and farm stand clientele.  It's difficult and frustrating at times, but then there are the local producers he's come to treasure working with, such as White Oak Pond Farm in Holderness, which found a way to grow artichokes exclusively for the Local Eatery.

Lastly, he has to throw out his menu every two weeks to reflect the changing availability of locally-harvested goods. "It's getting harder and harder. I've written 75 menus in three years," he said. During his first few months, he could conjure a new menu within a couple of hours. More recently, it takes a week of brainstorming with his staff. It's more work now, but he concedes that the end product is better for it.

Halligan said the best way to describe his cuisine is "American farm-to-table," which means, "I totally pay homage to the quality of the produce." Kitchen production is surprisingly simple and familiar. Vegetables are often just sprinkled with salt and pepper, drizzled with oil and roasted. Yet, he often hears people say that they're the best they've ever tasted. Recently, a woman asked him what his secret was to his carrots. He shrugged and suggested she visit her local farmers' market.  "I think people taste the quality. People say, 'Oh my God, it's so good.'... it's the way carrots should be."

His 35-seat restaurant has seen sales increase by 30 percent each of the three years he's been in operation. Now, his only regret is that he has to turn people away, and he scratches his head when he sees a pale, flavorless tomato served when the real McCoy can be had at the nearest farm stand.

On Sept. 27, Halligan will partner with Smith Orchard in Gilford to serve "Breakfast in the Orchard." Tickets are $35 per person and available at either Quik Laundry in Laconia, the Local Eatery or Smith Orchard.

Charlie Burke of Weather Hill Farm in Sanbornton, who heads the New Hampshire Farm to Restaurant Connection, says that he's not surprised by Halligan's success at the Local Eatery.

''Before he ever opened we worked with him on the certification process. He's done a great job there and is a strong advocate for fresh and locally-sourced food,'' says Burke.

He said that the Farm to Restaurant Connection, an all-volunteer group which works with New Hampshire Made to promote Granite State products and links farm and food producers with restaurants to make it easier for them to use local products in their menus has come quite a way in the last several years with its certification program and educational efforts.

He says that statewide there are some places taking the lead, like Jeff Paige at the Cotton Restaurant in Manchester, Trish Taylor at the Grappone Center in Concord and a new Manchester restaurant, The Foundry which is owned by Dean Kamen.

Another Lakes Region restaurant which he says is at the forefront of the Farm to Table effort is Tavern 27 on Parade Road in Laconia, which marked its fifth anniversary on May 5 of this year.

Owners Ray Simanson and Leslie Judice run an American Tapas Restaurant and say they strive to use local farmers and purveyors for their ingredients, organic when possible and that no trans-fats, artificial flavorings, or preservatives are used in their kitchen.

Their menu features delectable tapas, also known as small plates, such as inside out poppers, chickpea fries, duck confit rolls, Scotch eggs, chicken skewers, spicy cuke rolls as well as seared scallops, lobster salad, chicken salad and steak, pork and fish dishes, many salads as well as tavern made sourdough pizzas and a full range of organic and gluten free items.

The restaurant is housed in a 1781 building with exposed beams which was originally known as The Post Tavern.

Ray grew up in the Berkshires in western Massachusetts where he can remember a local milkman making deliveries while Leslie grew up in southern Louisiana, where food was all locally grown.

At one time they operated a 22-room bed and breakfast in Boulder, Colo., which they sold and acquired the 20-acre Parade Road property, which had formerly been the Tavern on the Green, which had a nine-hole mini-golf course. They purchased the Parade Road property on July 2009 with the idea of renting it out to someone who would operate a restaurant. When that didn't look like it was going to happen they decided to open a restaurant themselves.

''Having a tapas bar was kind of a whimsical idea because there was nothing around here like that. We wanted to serve organic and clean food,'' says Leslie. The couple built up a relationship with local farmers and received some unexpected help from them just before they opened.

''We threw a dinner for them and I remember going outside where two of the guys were having a smoke and I heard one of them say to the other, 'I'll see you in the morning at 8:30.' We had run out of money to finish painting the building and they showed up with a power spray washer the next morning and took all of the old paint off. Then there were about 12 people who showed up with paint brushes who painted the whole building. It was like an old-fashioned barn raising,'' said Ray.

In 2011 the couple started The Mystic Meadows Garden Project, a half acre organic garden, growing a wide variety of tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, corn, melons, squash, herbs using heirloom and rare seeds, all organic. They plan to open a greenhouse this winter and are looking for farming partners to make greater agricultural use of the property.

Andy and Martina Howe of Beans and Greens Farm of Gilford have been hosting a Farm to Table event featuring foods grown right on the farm for five years now. The dinners are held in a meadow at Timber Hill Farm on Gunstock Hill Road which provides a panoramic view of Lake Winnipesaukee. Guests take a tractor-drawn wagon ride to the meadow, where there is dancing to live music and s'mores by a bonfire to end the evening.

This year's event, held on July 24, featured food prepared by the The Common Man Inn of Plymouth's award-winning culinary team including farm fresh appetizers, Beans and Greens sweet breads, freshly picked salads, ratatouille, a Tofu entree, farm-raised chicken and Beans and Greens corn.
Beans and Greens also hosted a Thunder Moon Pig Roast and dance at its pavilion next to its farmstand in Gilford Meadows in early July which featured music by the Crunchy Western Boys and a barbecue dinner in late July featuring roast corn on the cob, barbecued chicken and sides which was also held at the Pavilion.

Moulton Farm in Meredith also holds Farm to Table events which provide true "field to fork" dining underneath the farm's tent while enjoying a view of the fields. The meals prepared by their talented farm chef Jonathan Diola who prepares dishes featuring foods grown and harvested earlier in the day.
Guests also have the option to join the pre-dinner tractor ride and tour through the fields.

Fall farm to table dinners are scheduled on Wednesday, Sept. 16, and Tuesday, Oct. 20.

Moulton Farm also hosts outdoor brunch buffet featuring seasonal fruit, baked goods, and egg and breakfast meat dishes prepared by the farm's kitchen and bakery staff.

"We're very fortunate to have a talented baker, Trish Lutkus, who trained at Johnson & Wales University," says Moulton. "Trish's baked goods are wonderful and eating them in a beautiful farm setting makes them even better."

The farm brunch buffet opens at 9 a.m. and closes at noon. Remaining dates this year are Sept. 13, Sept. 27, Oct. 4, Oct. 18 and Nov. 15.

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Gilford man pleads guilty to rape, will spend at least 18 years in prison

LACONIA – A Belknap County Superior Court judge accepted a Gilford man's guilty plea to three counts of rape yesterday and sentenced him to a minimum of 18 years in the N.H. State Prison. Douglas Fisher, 55, also pleaded guilty to one count each of burglary and robbery.

As part of the negotiated plea agreement, five years of the minimum of Fisher's sentence can be suspended provided he remain on good behavior while incarcerated and successfully complete a sexual offender rehabilitation program within the first five years of his incarceration.

He will be registered for life as a sex offender.

During her offer of proof, Belknap County Prosecutor Melissa Guldbrandsen told the court the state would prove that just before midnight on May 7, 2014, Fisher broke in the door of a 54-year-old woman's room on the Gilford side of the Margate Resort and Inn and, after a struggle, tied the woman hands behind her back with her shirt and raped her three times.

Guldbransen said the victim was in the area on business and was the only occupant of the Margate who was staying in the Gilford side of the resort. She said the victim would testify she went to bed at 9 p.m. that evening and was awaken by Fisher when he smashed in her door. She said it was dark and she couldn't identify her assailant. The victim unsuccessfully fought back and was told to keep quiet.

After the rape, Guldbrandsen said the woman was ordered by Fisher to find her pocketbook and give him the money in it which she estimated to be $200. Even though he threatened to return, once Fisher left, the victim found her cell phone and called police.

K-9 Patrol Officer Adam VanSteensburg responded almost immediately as he was in the area. Guldbrandsen said he would testify he found the door jam on Room 103 splintered and broken.

Once back up officers arrived VanSteensburg and his dog began a search that eventually led to a small house on the property where Fisher, who was employed by the Margate as a maintenance worker, lived. He spoke with Fisher who denied being near the motel that night.

Guldbrandsen said the victim was taken to Lakes Region General Hospital where her injuries were consistent with what she said happened to her. DNA swabs were taken and in August, a forensic doctor working at the state lab found sperm cells in one of the swabs. The DNA was extracted and entered into CODIS – the FBI's Combined DNA Index System and was matched to Fisher who was a felon convicted of drug sales in 1979 and who served a nine-month sentence.

Gilford Police obtained a warrant for Fisher's DNA and found it to be a match.

Guldbrandsen told the court the most important thing about the plea bargain was "finality and closure" for the victim. When Judge James O'Neill asked her why there was no restitution on the robbery conviction, Guldbrandsen replied that the victim said she didn't want anything from him nor did she want to be at his sentencing.

She described the victim as a "strong woman" who was moving on with her life.

Fisher was defended by Public Defenders Eric Wolpin and Amy Ashworth. Wolpin told the court that the case was difficult for everyone involved and his client agreed to take responsibility for his actions so he and his victim could move on with their lives. Wolpin asked the court to accept the plea.

Guldbrandsen said the plea bargain addressed three important components of justice – punishment, rehabilitation and closure for the victim. She emphasized to O'Neill that the victim did not want to relive her ordeal at a trial.

Aside from pleading guilty separately to all five counts and telling the court that he understood the rights he was waiving by accepting the plea, Fisher said nothing and stared straightforward during most of the nearly hour-long hearing.

Gilford Police Sgt. Christopher Jacques and Det. Denise Parker were the lead investigators in the case and both were at yesterday's sentencing.

"Today is all about the victim," Jacques said after the sentencing. "The fact of the matter is that this is closure for a strong woman."

Parker echoed Jacques and said she's very happy the victim found some closure.

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Changing of the guard: Warren takes over as CEO of LRGHealthcare

LACONIA — "I'm picking up the baton Chuck is handing off," remarked Seth Warren, who will take up the reins as chief executive officer of LRGHealthcare next month, succeeding Chuck Van Sluyter, the interim CEO appointed when Tom Clairmont retired a year ago.

Warren and Van Sluyter yesterday discussed the transition together with the strategic plan developed by the Board of Trustees, staff, partners and patients to address the changing health care marketplace.

Warren has spent the last 16 years with the Sisters of St. Francis Health Services, Inc. or Francisan Alliance, a Catholic health care system headquartered in Mishawaka, Indiana consisting of 13 hospitals and numerous clinics, with 18,000 employees, the last six as president of St. James Hospital in Chicago Heights and Olympia Fields, Illinois, a 400-bed teaching hospital. He is well acquainted with the challenges posed by the aging, uninsured and underinsured population served by LRGH as 45 percent of the patients at St. James Hospital were enrolled in Medicare and another 15 percent in Medicaid.

"I came in with my eyes wide open," said Warren, moving Van Sluyter to add "there's no place to hide."

Warren said that the overarching objective will be to provide a continuum of care with the goal of "trying to keep people out of hospital," where both the hospital and its patients incur costs that can be avoided by a regimen of preventive care, managing illness and wellness programs.

The strategic plan sets a number of priorities. First and foremost it calls for assessing the needs of the population LRGH serves and tailoring services to meet them, which will include expanding the walk-in clinic — Convenience Care — along with pediatric and gynecological services. At the same time, in partnership with Genesis Behavioral Health, Horizons Counseling Center and other agencies LRGH will seek to improve and integrate treatment for mental illness and substance abuse mental health in the community.

LRGH will enhance and pursue its collaborative relationships with other healthcare and social service providers in the region to ensure a seamless experience for patients. Tightening communication and procedures between health care providers in different departments within LRGH and with other agencies in the community will improve management of patients and outcomes of treatment. And telehealth services, like those used to treat stroke victims in partnership with Massachusetts General Hospital, will be expanded.

Van Sluyter said that several other initiatives are already underway. The emergency department will be expanded. The debt will restructured. And communications about the treatment and conditions of patients between practitioners within the hospitals will be computerized through a partnership with the Speare Memorial hospital in Plymouth.

Of all LRGH's collaborative relationships the Granite Health Network, a consortium of five of the largest hospitals in the state formed in 2011, is especially promising. The aim of the partnership is to leverage clinical and administrative resources of the members to improve the quality and efficiency of medical services. Van Sluyter said that efficiencies approaching $5 million have already been achieved.

Earlier this year the network announced the Tufts Freedom Plan, a provider-payer insurance company administered by the Tufts Health Plan, in which the 18,000 employees of the five member hospitals will be enrolled. The company will ultimately compete throughout the state with other other health insurance carriers.

Meanwhile, Warren will be faced with improving the financial performance and condition of LRGH in the teeth of what he called "payment pressures — lower, slower, no payment." This week Moody's investment services lifted its negative outlook for nonprofit hospitals, like LRGH, which has been in pace since 2008, noting that prospects have improved especially in states, including New Hampshire, where Medicaid enrollments have been expanded.

Warren said that although reimbursement rates could be higher, as the number of insured patients has grown, the volume of emergency room visits has declined and the opportunity to manage chronic illnesses, sparing patients costly acute care services, is greater. On the other hand, he said that payments to hospitals are more closely tied to the quality of the care they provide — as measured by readmission and infection rates, for example — placing a premium on operating excellence and efficiency.

"Chuck was the change agent," Warren said. "He marked the pathway for me to follow."

"But, you have to implement the plan," Van Sluyter replied, adding that "the higher you climb, the more the horizon embraces."

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